Tom Rowley on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”

January 25, 2010


The Gift of Good Land

The Gift of Good Land

Today’s response to Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” comes from Thomas Rowley, executive director of A Rocha USA, the American branch of the international Christian conservation organization A Rocha.

“The Gift of Good Land,” was published 30 years ago, and we reprinted it in the Fall 2009 issue of Flourish Magazine to celebrate Mr. Berry’s work, but also to provoke some questions: How has the natural world, and efforts to steward it, changed in these 30 years? How has Christianity changed? What is still relevant about Mr. Berry’s words today? What have been our successes and failures as creation’s stewards in these three decades? Where do we go from here?

We’ve asked a wide variety of Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders to respond to Mr. Berry’s essay, taking into consideration these questions and their own relevant experiences. Here is Thomas Rowley’s reflection:

Saving the Planet in the Particular
By Thomas D. Rowley
Writing about the work of Wendell Berry—in this case, “The Gift of Good Land”—seems, for me, a presumptuous undertaking. Much better to hand over the original and say, “Here, savor.”  Rather than commenting, critiquing or even trying to paraphrase, therefore, I’ll simply take one of his many fecund ideas and run with it just a bit.

“Let us speak of things at hand.”

With that phrase, Berry both warns us against abstraction (What does it mean really to “care for the environment”?) and calls us to the skillful tending of a particular place. In “The Gift of Good Land” he illustrates this with agriculture: “The trouble is that “world hunger” is not a problem that can be solved by a “world solution.”

In his essay “Word and Flesh,” Berry makes the same point with a different example: “The question that must be addressed, therefore, is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others. Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence—that is, to the wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods.”

My deep appreciation for his point grows from two roots. First, my little mind cannot begin to conjure the grand solution(s) to the environmental crises we have wrought. I am, as Berry rightly puts it, incompetent.

Second, caring for individual human and natural neighborhoods is precisely what A Rocha has been doing for more than 25 years. Whether protecting the endangered Arubuko-Sokoke Forest in Kenya while raising funds to send local children to school; mobilizing churchgoers to clean and maintain the Boise River watershed in Idaho; helping farmers restore critical wetlands in Lebanon and France; maintaining wildlife habitat, reconnecting residents to nature and growing fresh organic produce for low-income people all on 40 acres in Santa Barbara, California; or working in any of the 19 countries currently in our portfolio; A Rocha heeds Berry’s admonition to use “knowledge and tools in a particular place with good long-term results.”

It is, of course, good and right to lessen our impact on God’s good land—as so many are now doing by reducing, reusing, and recycling. It is, however, not enough. As pastor and author Tri Robinson puts it, we must not merely decrease our footprint, we must increase our handprint. That, to me, and I think to Berry, is true stewardship. And God’s calling to each and every one of us.
Thomas D. Rowley is Executive Director of A Rocha USA, a non-profit conservation organization mobilizing Christians to steward the Earth in communities across the nation–through educational programs and hands-on conservation projects. A Rocha USA is part of the worldwide family of A Rocha projects. For more information, please see

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